What is Plastic Recycling?
The story of plastics is a story about convenience, consumption, profit, and narrow vision. It is about linear systems and disposable economies. It is a story about one country’s ability to effectively create, sustain, and now drastically transform a global industry. It is a story about markets and production. It is a story about stuff. The story of plastics is a story, ultimately, about us.
Origins of Plastic Recycling
The advent of curbside plastics recycling programs in the United States – and for that matter globally – in the 1990s did not happen by chance. Rather, it was a byproduct of China’s demand for the raw materials needed to fuel an economic boom that produced much of the world’s goods. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 only strengthened the country’s already burgeoning economy and trade activity with the likes of Europe and the United States.
The 1990s witnessed a barrage of cargo ships from China laden with toys, electronics, clothing, and other plastic goods arrive on the US West Coast. As their contents were offloaded and sent to retailers nationwide, the ships were full of empty cargo containers—valuable space that made no sense to send back overseas empty. What better to fill these containers with than something that China was willing to pay for and the US was equally happy to part with—plastic waste. It was an economic match made in heaven, especially since China did not produce much of its own virgin plastic but required large quantities of inexpensive plastics to meet the growing global demand for plastic goods.
While Chinese manufacturers craved America’s plastic waste, investments in domestic manufacturing infrastructure floundered in light of the very same economic factors that fueled the appetite overseas – cost and demand. Inferior manufacturing demand and the cost prohibitive factors of US-based labor and facility operations could not compete with the inexpensive labor, readily available markets, and insatiable appetite from overseas—and all with virtually free shipping.
Recycling is part of the solution, but it’s not enough. To do their part for the environment, people need to think beyond merely tossing their plastics in a recycling bin. Each year, less than 10% of plastics used in the US get recycled. It’s due to a variety of factors, including lack of consumer awareness and participation in recycling programs, the volatility of prices for recycled plastics, processing costs, recyclables accepted by curbside programs, and the biggest challenge—the lack of recycling infrastructure. While 400+ million tons (and growing) of plastics are produced globally each year, recycling infrastructure remains largely stagnant.
The Tipping Point
Even something this economically rational could not last forever. After nearly three decades of growth and economic vitality, a number of factors emerged and began to take their toll on the virtuous cycle—namely a glut of plastics. The United States was far from the only country sending its plastic discards to China. As plastics became more integrated into our everyday lives—covering our coffee, cradling our salads, and containing our bottled water—and as more and more nations bought in to the system, China’s once mighty appetite for plastic began to wane.
Meanwhile, the quality of plastic bales arriving at Chinese ports deteriorated at the same rate that recycling popularity grew in the US and elsewhere. As recycling became available to the masses, and as the lower-grade, disposal-minded plastics entered the market, consumers’ thoughtless – or sometimes overzealous – participation in recycling programs led to messy, contaminated bales.
Add to these challenges the growing costs of labor and processing for recycled plastics. It turns out that collecting, sorting, baling, shipping, cleaning, shredding, melting, pelletizing, and coloring plastics requires resources, time, and people. All of these cost money, and the cost for manufacturers to use certain recycled plastics in their products quickly exceeded the cost of
using new virgin resins.
Not all plastics are created equal, yet effective recycling of any plastic is dependent upon its marketability. These evolving plastics are generally designed for convenience and disposal, and
the economics of recovery and thus scalable recycling solutions do not yet exist. If material processors like Recology cannot effectively collect the materials, and if recyclers cannot in turn
sell the materials back to manufacturers, the recycling system falls apart. Plastics producers must be mindful of the utility, recyclability, and marketability of their products.
And remember China’s economic boom? Thirty years of economic growth does a lot of good for a county – chief among them being the creation of a middle class. A middle class that, not surprisingly, creates its own waste that itself needs to be managed. China, fueled by the world’s waste, eventually came to generate enough of its own that its craving of foreign discards diminished further.
On the world stage, China’s emergence as a superpower (due to its economic boom and the resulting burgeoning middle class) included new climate and pollution reduction targets. They aimed to address the adverse environmental impacts created during the manufacturing frenzy of the previous 30+ years by curbing and reshaping the manufacturing and production processes across the country. Weighing in too is the country’s desire to cast itself in a new environmental light – one outside the shadow of being perceived as the world’s dumping ground.
All these factors – the glut, cost, evolution, and messy nature of plastics, peaking production, the emerging middle class, and the country’s arrival on the global environmental stage led to the country’s decision that, beginning in 2018, it would all but eliminate the import of recycled materials. In addition, the Chinese government placed strict quality requirements on their remaining recycled material imports while banning others outright, including various grades of plastics. The announcement, not surprisingly, sent shockwaves throughout the global recycling industry as material processors and recyclers scrambled to identify new markets for the truckloads of recyclables that continued to arrive at their doors.
Markets emerged, particularly in Southeast Asia, but with only fractions of the appetite held by China. And compared to the formerly reliable, high-volume demands of the Chinese markets, the smaller markets in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia are of greater distance from US ports and are quickly overloaded—resulting in backlogs of material and issues with these countries handling their own domestic waste streams.
In the end, recycling is dependent upon markets – markets that are subject to fluctuations and volatility caused by external factors like trade and labor relationships, costs and availability of virgin resources, and regional economic trends. If nobody wants to buy the materials or if market factors diminish the materials’ value, companies can’t profit from selling them and the system falls apart.
Grappling with Change
Back home, the disruption continues to be felt. Baled recyclables sit stockpiled in warehouses, waiting for an opportunity to be sold. Some cities, finding no other outlet, have turned to landfilling collected and baled recyclables. Still others have reduced recycling programs, no longer accepting certain plastics they once did.
Recycling is not broken, but it’s grappling with change. It needs all the help it can get – from manufacturers, to processors, to individual consumers. The most effective – and perhaps only – way to combat the growing glut of plastic waste in our society is to refuse disposable plastics whenever and wherever possible. With the average American generating 215 pounds of plastic waste each year, we have created an issue that recycling alone cannot solve.
Despite widespread availability of recycling collection programs, the EPA estimates that less than 10% of plastic waste generated in the United States is recycled each year. While this can be partially attributed to a lack of consumer participation in recycling programs, a number of other factors contribute to this lack of recovery.
Despite widespread implementation of national recycling programs and educational campaigns, the US recycling rate for PET plastics hovers around 30%, with the rest ending up in landfills, incinerators, or as litter. Lack of participation in these recycling programs, limited consumer awareness, and fluctuating commodity markets pose complex barriers to closed-loop recycling systems. With the average American generating 215 pounds of plastic waste each year, the most effective way to combat the growing glut of plastic waste in our society is to refuse single-use plastics in the first place.
Our consumer culture – driven by the notion of new, better, and more – is by no means exempt from ecological principles. Resources (inputs) must come from somewhere, and waste (outputs) must in turn go somewhere. When something no longer retains its perceived value, our society simply wants to make it disappear. With ecology as our guide, Recology aims for the best and highest use of our society’s discards, by striving to capture value in what we, collectively, throw away.
As is often the case with complex problems, no one solution exists. Recycling is part of the answer, but it’s not enough. We need plastics manufacturers to produce resins that can be recycled at scale, and we need a new consumer consciousness that values those products. Yet investments in recycling infrastructure alone – foreign or domestic – only validates a continued reliance on disposable plastics. The answer, ultimately, rests with a slackening and eventual elimination of our addiction to the plastics that for decades we cheerily, and perhaps naively, sent away. Ecology – the study of organisms and their interactions that governs all life on our planet – teaches us that there is no away, that everything goes somewhere.
The Recology approach to resource recovery is unique, and is perhaps best told through the company’s integrated waste systems in San Francisco, California. The three-cart collection system, pioneered by Recology beginning in the 1990s, developed into a comprehensive curbside program that made recycling and organic waste collection available to residents and businesses citywide.
When San Francisco companies and residents place recyclables like single-use plastic in their blue bins, the contents are collected by 180 Recology trucks and deposited at Pier 96’s Recycle Central, the largest material recovery facility (MRF) on the West Coast.
MRFs sort these mixed recyclables into distinct commodities and prepare them for sale. This includes sorting plastics by resin type, and paper, metals, and glass by different grades, colors, and quality. By the time these materials work their way through the facility’s sorting systems, close to 90% of the materials that arrive will be recovered and sold for recycling.
All plastics are not created equal. While proven and often domestic recycling solutions exist for high-grade resins, manufacturers continue to engineer newer, cheaper, and disposable products with distinct chemical properties that enhance flexibility, appearance, and convenience. For much of this new generation of plastics, the economics of recovery and thus scalable recycling solutions do not yet exist.
After a customer puts their recyclables in a bin, they are collected and brought to a MRF, where they are sorted and baled by material type. To maximize the recovery of plastics, a MRF usually ships different materials to specialized processing facilities where they are cleaned, shredded, and pelletized to become “raw” materials that can be re-incorporated into the manufacturing of new products. While metals, paper, and glass have clearly defined recycling streams, plastics are made from a variety of resins, which are often combined, making their recovery a costly and complex process. Most higher-grade (#1-2) plastics are sold to domestic recyclers, while #3-7 mixed are shipped to Asia. While plastics manufacturers constantly make cheaper, lighter resins with distinct qualities (rigidity, flexibility, durability, etc.) and therefore different chemical properties, these new plastics will, in turn, require new recycling methods. These evolving plastics require new and different processing methods, and in many cases they are designed for disposability instead of recovery.
It is important to consider that while recycling plastics is a better alternative to incineration or landfilling, it’s a misconception to think that plastic, even when recycled, has no environmental impact. Collecting, processing, transporting, and recycling plastics uses energy, fuel, and water. Most plastics that are recycled are actually downcycled, meaning their transformation into products like plastic lumber, fiberglass, or clothing breaks the closed-loop system. While these products are manufactured from recycled plastics, they have little-to-no likelihood of being recycled again once their utility has expired. In these cases, recycling is only a partial solution. Plastics producers, consumers, and resource recovery providers must continue working together to create a true closed-loop system that does not result in landfilled or downcycled products.
California’s state-funded deposit program, known as the California Redemption Value (CRV), might not be broken – but it is becoming obsolete.
In 1986, in an effort to spark recycling participation, the California legislature enacted the Bottle Bill or AB 2020, formally known as the Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act. Through this program, beverage manufacturers and distributors are charged a deposit that is passed on to retailers and ultimately individual consumers. This deposit, typically 5 or 10 cents per container, can be redeemed when the consumer returns the CRV-eligible container to a certified recycling center. Program fees, when combined with statewide unredeemed funds, help fund city and county recycling programs, recycling market development, grants to nonprofits and conservation agencies, and consumer education campaigns.
The California CRV program might not be broken – but it is becoming obsolete. In the past four years more than 40% of statewide redemption centers have closed. The emergence of curbside recycling programs has become a tenet of California’s progressive waste recovery infrastructure, bringing convenient recycling services to the doorstep or virtually every household, apartment, and business in the state. As such, the need for a deposit-based redemption program has dwindled. Revenues generated from manufacturers may be better spent on market development, education programs, and further support for curbside programs.
While the Bottle Bill was an important catalyst to initiate consumer-level recycling in California, the program is becoming obsolete. The Bill predated the emergence of curbside recycling programs – like those offered by Recology – in California. Today, widespread availability of recycling programs has become a core tenet of California’s progressive waste recovery infrastructure, as Recology and other service providers deliver convenient recycling services to the doorstep of virtually every household, apartment, and business in the state. As such, the need for a deposit-based redemption program has dwindled.
Recycling centers that participate in the California CRV program, like the Recology-operated facility above in San Francisco, are in increasingly short supply. Since 2015, some 40% of statewide centers have closed amid elevated operating costs, dwindling commodity prices, and public pressure.
Limitations of the bill’s scope and flexibility have created additional barriers to its widespread success. As it is limited to only certain qualifying single-use beverage containers, the program covers less than 4% of the waste stream. What’s more, the redemption value paid back to recycling centers (to cover the cost of what they pay consumers who redeem their CRV recyclables) does not cover increasing processing costs nor make up for sharply lower commodity prices. As a result, between 2015 and 2019, more than 1,000 CRV redemption centers, about 40% of locations statewide, closed.
Most recently, in August 2019, RePlanet, the largest remaining independent provider of CRV-redemption centers, shuttered its remaining 280 locations and laid off its entire 750-person workforce. Clearly, the CRV program – while an important step to initiate consumer-level recycling in California, is becoming a relic of a bygone era.
There is plastic in virtually every aspect of our lives. It cradles our food when it is processed, transported, served, and carried “to go.” And despite consumers’ best intentions, plastics of all sorts – including forks, clamshells, bags, and coffee lids – find their way into compost feedstocks.
They have no place in our food and soil systems and pose a substantial challenge for composters like Recology, as significant investments in labor, screening technologies, and machinery must be made to ensure a clean and plastic-free finished product.
Removing plastics from organic feedstocks is no simple feat. The increased popularity of curbside food waste collection programs has led to an increase in feedstock contaminants – namely plastics. In order to protect the integrity of the finished compost product, significant investments in human labor, screening technologies, and machinery are made to ensure a clean and plastic-free finished product. All these actions lead to a more expensive and less efficient operation. Plastics removed during the composting process have no marketable value and are destined for the landfill.
Composting provides numerous environmental benefits. Composting organic materials instead of landfilling significantly reduces the generation of methane (CH4), a potent greenhouse gas. CalEPA and the California Air Resource Board estimate that for every ton of organic waste composted instead of landfilled, approximately one-half (½) metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent is avoided – a number equal to the CO2 emissions generated from burning 56 gallons of gasoline.
When finished compost is applied to farms and vineyards, it supports the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Compost also increases topsoil resistance to erosion, reduces water use by retaining soil moisture, and increases the microbial activity of the soil community, creating healthier and more resilient soil systems.
The journey for transforming food, yard trimmings, and fiber products into nutrient-rich compost begins with the customer, be it households, restaurants, grocers, landscapers, and farmers. Raw organic feedstocks arrive at Recology composting facilities in a steady stream of curbside collection trucks, pickups, semi-trailers from transfer stations, and flatbed trailers from supermarket distribution centers. While the majority of this material arrives ready for processing, much of the food-rich feedstocks contain plastics that must be removed.
Plastics present an ongoing challenge when trying to produce a clean, quality compost product. The Recology Blossom Valley Organics composting facility in Vernalis, CA, employs more than 60 people and produces organic-listed compost from food scraps and yard trimmings collected from homes and businesses in San Francisco and other Northern California cities.
With the recent growth of municipal composting programs, has come an increase in plastic contaminants. And removing plastics from compost feedstocks is no simple feat. In order to protect the integrity of the finished product, composters have been forced to invest in new screening technologies, implement secondary screenings, and in some cases reject customer loads. All these actions lead to a more expensive and less efficient operation.
Plastics and other contaminants – or residuals – are screened at various stages throughout the composting process. An initial screening of the feedstock removes larger contaminants before the composting process begins. Plastics removed during these screenings have no marketable value and are destined for landfill.
Once past the initial screening, feedstocks are mixed to reach the proper balance of carbon and nitrogen that will create the ideal habitat for the naturally-occurring microorganisms that feed on and decompose the organic matter, eventually transforming apple cores, grass clippings, and chicken bones into nutrient-rich compost.
Composting organic materials instead of placing them in a landfill reduces the generation of methane gas (CH4), a significant contributor to climate change. CalEPA and the California Air Resource Board estimate that for every ton of organic waste composted instead of landfilled, approximately one-half (½) metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent is avoided – a number equal to the CO2 emissions generated from burning 56 gallons of gasoline. As a result, composting is quickly becoming an integral component of municipal, state, and federal climate mitigation strategies.
Screened feedstock is arranged into long rows (windrows) and two key ingredients – oxygen and water – are introduced to foster the aerobic environment necessary for the microorganisms to thrive. Like many modern compost facilities, Recology Jepson Prairie Organics uses Aerated Static Pile (ASP) systems to produce compost. ASP systems use a network of pipes that circulate oxygen through compost windrows and channel the extracted gas through a biofilter to reduce odors and volatile organic compounds.
After 60-70 days of ASP composting, the compost goes through a final screening to remove any remaining contaminants before being prepared for sale. Compost testing is administered regularly and throughout the composting process by independent, state-accredited laboratories to ensure rigorous safety, quality and nutrient measures are achieved. All Recology compost retains the US Compost Council Seal of Testing Assurance and is listed organic by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Compost is sold to local farmers, gardeners, and vintners to improve the physical properties of the soil and create stronger, healthier yields.
Applying compost provides a number of climate, soil, and ecosystem benefits, including carbon sequestration and the reduction of synthetic fertilizer and herbicide use. Compost increases topsoil resistance to erosion, reduces water use by retaining soil moisture, and increases the microbial activity of the soil community, creating healthier and more resilient soil systems. Farmers, gardeners, and vintners apply compost to their fields and gardens to improve the physical properties of the soil and create stronger, healthier yields.
While composting is recognized for providing myriad environmental and economic benefits and is quickly becoming an integral component of municipal, state, and federal climate mitigation strategies, the issue of plastics cannot be ignored.
As commercial-scale composting continues to expand and help provide solutions for some of today’s greatest environmental challenges, all stakeholders – from manufacturers to distributors to individual consumers, must be conscientious of their behaviors and the legacy of their impact.
Each year, 90% of plastics entering the US waste stream are not recycled. Most end up here, where they’ll remain for hundreds, or even thousands of years. The plastics that end up in landfills don’t decompose like food, paper, or yard trimmings. Effectively locked away, they retain their embedded energy, contributing no economic or environmental benefit. As emerging science continues to expound upon alarming evidence related to the toxicity of many plastics and the likely correlative adverse impacts on human and ecosystem health, a time will come when we must ask ourselves what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of convenience.
HOW A LANDFILL WORKS
Landfills are highly-engineered systems that begin as a depression in the ground. Waste—including plastics—is deposited, compressed, then covered with dirt to prevent odors and wind-swept litter. This layering effectively “entombs” the waste in an oxygen-deprived environment; anaerobic bacteria thrive here, generating methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is captured through a network of underground wells and used to generate electricity or safely combusted with flaring systems. Decomposing waste also creates liquid “leachate” that is collected and properly disposed. Over time, this depression will become a mountain.
WHY MANY PLASTICS AREN’T RECYCLED
All plastics are not created equal. While proven recycling solutions exist for high-grade resins, plastic manufacturers are in many cases trending toward lower-grade (cheaper) resins and multi-layer, single-use products designed for convenience and disposability instead of durability and recyclability. For much of this new generation of plastics, the economics of recovery and thus scalable recycling solutions do not yet exist.
By its very nature, waste is a byproduct of inefficiency. Landfills, the final resting place for much of our society’s discards, are monumental representations of our short-sighted and inefficient systems. They are tangible and sobering realities of the linear systems that have emerged to embrace our culture’s disposable economies. The big question is how can we learn from and design within nature to engineer waste right out of our systems and make landfills relics of the past?
Helping our world address its addiction to single-use plastics is the next big challenge for Recology. In addition to ensuring efficient and effective recovery systems for our plastics, we all must recognize that eliminating our dependency on disposable products is the shared responsibility of manufacturers, consumers, and recyclers. We cannot afford to do nothing.
Today, images of wildlife struggling for survival with bellies full of plastic are widespread, as are alarming findings of microplastics in our air, our water, and even our bloodstream.
This is a crisis that recycling alone cannot solve. While taxpayers, local governments, and recyclers have been financing and operating the infrastructure since the implementation of curbside recycling programs, one notable stakeholder has been missing from these investments – plastics manufacturers. It is time the plastics industry stands up and addresses the issue of the pervasive, non-recoverable polymers that enter the marketplace.
Recycling will always be part of the solution, and we are doing everything within our power to ensure its success. We have invested millions in our recycling infrastructure in the past three years, including technological upgrades with state-of-the-art optical sorters and robotics that can recover more plastics for recycling. We have expanded our domestic markets for plastics, have continued to prioritize consumer best practices with our education platforms, and have partnered with municipalities to sustain community recycling programs.
Yet we refuse to stand idly by as our societies and ecosystems drown in plastic waste. As a company, we are uniquely positioned to leverage our collective voice and redefine the relationship between plastics manufacturers and the products they create. To that end, we have backed progressive plastic waste-reduction legislation in California, and will continue to do so in the future. We also stand as willing partners with plastics manufacturers to develop systems and technologies that lead to genuine recycling of plastic products. Advancing the conversation on redesign, recovery and recycling of plastics is a mechanism for driving the future of recycling systems and influencing sustainable consumer behavior.
In the end, we all share the burden with ensuring a brighter future. Will you join us?
Recology is a 100% employee owned resource recovery and disposal company based in San Francisco, CA. The company provides integrated environmental services – including materials collection and processing, product sales, and education – to more than 140 communities throughout California, Oregon, and Washington.